Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Do not be Afraid, Just believe. Mark 5:21-43

A New Testament professor in seminary teaches her students to read the Gospels between the lines and behind the words. There's so much meaning there, she would say, in the text, right before your eyes and yet we quite often miss it entirely. For example, last week’s reading, the crossings over the sea: if we focused more on the small picture, what was happening to people, right then, when Jesus arrived at his destination. There was always plenty to concentrate on, but the bigger picture might escape your attention.

Last week we spoke of the sea being that liminal space, dangerous, full of fear and the unknown.  It was a place of boundaries, so what does it mean that one side of the sea was Jewish territory, and the other Gentile?  Stepping into the unknown there is tension and a risk, maybe even danger. Jesus and the disciples are going somewhere less hospitable, less comfortable, less safe. If you were a first-century Jewish Christian, you probably would not have needed anyone to set the scene for you?

In the hearing of this Gospel you would have felt the tension as you listened to the story. “Think of border crossings into North Korea or Syria or Iran today: the danger they hold and the international crises they provoke. And what about the border crossings on our minds every day, during this most recent immigration crisis?

The storms and the risks are something we understand metaphorically as we face the challenges in our life as the church, taking the risk of opening ourselves up and reaching out to the other. It wasn't an easy crossing for the disciples, either.
“This tension runs underneath the narrative in many of the stories in the Gospel of Mark. After spending time on Jesus' preaching with words, Mark turns to the way Jesus preached with his actions, in a sense, showing, not just telling people what the reign of God looks like. Jesus goes back and forth across the sea, doing many works of wonder and yet not always receiving a warm reception. Another theme that runs throughout these stories is really a way of describing that reception: faith, or no faith. Faith, or fearfulness. Faith, or confusion or hard-headedness or maybe even hard-heartedness.”[1]

The Gospel this week sits on that point between faith and fear, faith and despair and even faith beyond hope. There are two stories in one here, both of them taking place on "this" side of the sea, the familiar side of the sea, you might say Jesus is with his people for he has just returned from Gadarene from Gentile territory where he met and healed the madman. In kind the villagers, perhaps politely but definitely with fear, asked Jesus and his followers to leave. “Fear, not rejoicing, was the response of the people who witnessed the spectacular and very public healing of a man who had unclean spirits; surprisingly, they didn't flock to Jesus in hope of more miracles.”[2]

This week's passage contains two stories. “Both stories involve women in crisis--in fact, we don't know them by their names but by their needs--both "daughters" of Abraham, not outsiders to begin with but now both subject to the taboos around the mysterious power of life (blood) and the even more mysterious (and seemingly unconquerable) power of death. There were those who believed that bleeding women and dead girls should be avoided, at the risk of conveying their uncleanness to others.”[3]

“The number twelve is significant in Jewish thought (for example, the twelve tribes and the twelve apostles), so it's no coincidence that the woman has been bleeding (and therefore cut off from life) for twelve years. Richard Swanson says that blood is "the place that God's first breath is understood to inhabit a human being, the place also from which we give life back." He finds it intriguing that the word "flow" could also be translated as "river," as "this woman's life is swept along by a condition that persists for far too many years" (Provoking the Gospel of Mark).”[4]

In "Faith and the Vulnerability of Children", Brooks Berndt points out that “The theme running throughout this narrative is that of faith: faith in God despite the circumstances. Scholars have suggested that the repeated use of the number twelve for the age of the girl and the duration of the woman's hemorrhaging suggests that this story is ultimately a metaphor for the faith of Israel with its twelve tribes.”[5]

So, we have Jesus landing on the shore, he is mobbed, then Jairus a leader of the synagogue pleads with Jesus to heal his daughter, and then Jesus is on the move form point A, the shore, to point B, Jairus house. It is here in this in between space that Jesus’ cloak is touched.  Not even his physical body but his cloak.  Jesus doesn't permit this touch to go unnoticed, he does not let it remain in an in between space, anonymous, something that just happens in passing.  He stops he scans the crowd and asks, “who touched my clothes?”

 Jesus “lets himself be sidetracked from hurrying to the synagogue leader's home long enough to find the person who has reached out to him with a touch that's more specific, more intentional, than merely jostling him in the crowd. Perhaps the crowd wanted to get near a celebrity, but this woman was reaching for her life. Jesus felt both her weariness and her deep hope. How could he simply walk away?”[6]

Life has been renewed, a miracle has happened and again it happened in that in between space, that liminal space between here and there.  What’s the saying…something about its not the destination but the journey? This liminal space has become a destination, a place of learning, a space of healing, a space of faith beyond hope. It is for that very reason that we need to stop, breathe and take notice.  Mark is telling us where we least expect it…in our rush from point A to point B…miracles happen.

The next nameless woman has just reached adulthood at twelve years old (that means the older woman has been bleeding during this girl's entire lifetime). However, an unknown illness has struck her down. This leads her father, who in the best of ancient fashion does get a name, to seek out Jesus in his desperate search for help.

We know this man is "an important person," a religious leader in the synagogue. “Since first-century synagogues were local communal institutions, it is not surprising that there is no evidence for a centralized group that determined what took place inside of them. Although scholars used to assume that the Pharisees (the likely precursors to the rabbis) were in charge of synagogues, most first-century sources identify elders, priests, and archisynagogoi (Greek for “heads of synagogues”) as the leaders of synagogues (Philo, Hypothetica 7.12-3, Theodotus Inscription, Mark 5:22-23). Rabbinic leadership of synagogues (which is what we are familiar with today) was limited in the first few centuries C.E. and didn’t crystallize until the medieval period.”[7]

So here we have a leader of basically a slightly organized study group.  Since there was no central control over the synagogues Israel often kept an eye on them and tried to keep them in control. Knowing he may have been being watched didn’t matter at this point. “His precious child's illness has reduced him to falling to the ground in front of a traveling folk healer in a last-ditch effort to prevent the worst from happening. This man's name is known to us: Jairus. Megan McKenna tells us that his name (onomati 'Iairos) in Greek is "a clue to what is going to happen": it means "he who will be awakened, or he is enlightened" (On Your Mark: Reading Mark in the Shadow of the Cross).”[8]
This man in-spite of risk of being seen as encouraging Jesus’ ministry, in-spite of knowing that anything could take a person’s life and most likely at any given moment something would. This was before Science was able to intervene if oyu got sick more likely than not you died. John Pilch observes that in Jesus' time "60 percent of live births usually died by their mid-teens" (The Cultural World of Jesus Year B) This was just a fact.   Many adults did not want to get too attached ot their children for this very reason and for a man to seem to care so greatly for a daughter in this time is truly amazing.

“The gift of a child must have seemed too precarious to invest in wholeheartedly, yet this man couldn't bear to lose his little girl even, Charles Campbell writes, "at a time when daughters were not valued as much as sons" (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). By going to this itinerant preacher-healer who was already in trouble with the authorities (authorities like him, in fact, his colleagues and perhaps even his friends), he risks being ridiculed, and he also risks missing the last few precious moments in his daughter's life.”[9]

This man was on life’s journey from point A to Point B.  He knew what was important. He knew what was right and what was wrong.  He knew the law. He knew that this Jesus was a trouble maker.  He knew the talk against him. But then in the middle of his planned-out life his daughter becomes ill. In this in between time this unplanned time arises fear, arises desperation, arises re-evaluation. This Jesus who was more a trouble make and a nuisance has now become his refuge, his only hope. Then to make it more poignant as they are on their way from the shore to his house even his hop dies. His servants come to tell him don’t bother the master for your daughter has died. “when the news arrives of his daughter's death. Jesus, Barbara Brown Taylor observes, then preaches the "shortest sermon of his career: 'Do not fear,' he says to the grief-besotted man, 'only believe.'"[10]

Now there is a sermon; “do not fear, only believe!” In the midst of unbelievable odds, in the liminal place where fear and confusion reign, do not fear just believe. What ever troubles your soul be it small or be it huge, do not fear, only believe.  When life catches you off guard, when you are just trying to get from point A to point B move forward without fear step boldly in belief.
I do not believe I can add any more to Jesus words here…If you never remember anything I said or anything I said …that is great as long as you do what Jesus has taught us here Do not fear only Believe. And when it is all over, when we have gotten through whatever we need to get through remember the last part of the gospel get up, walk and have something to eat! Yes, that’s all remember top get up, walk have something to eat and do not fear only believe…If you can do that you can do anything…amen!

[1] http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_july_1_2018
[2] Ditto
[3] http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_july_1_2018
[4] Ditto
[5] http://www.ucc.org/faith_and_the_vulnerability_of_children
[6] http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_july_1_2018
[7] https://www.bibleodyssey.org/places/related-articles/first-century-synagogues
[8] http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_july_1_2018#mark
[9] Ditto
[10] ditto

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